Guyanese Americans

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Date: 2014
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Guyanese Americans

Jacqueline A. McLeod


Guyanese Americans are immigrants or descendents of people from the Cooperative Republic of Guyana—formerly the colony of British Guiana—a country larger than the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean put together. It sprawls across 83,000 square miles of the northeastern coast of South America, bounded on the west by Venezuela, on the southwest by Brazil, and on the east by Suriname. As one of many Caribbean nations, Guyana is often assumed to be an island rather than a continental country. Its northern boundary consists of 250 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, and as a nation, it is slightly bigger than the state of Kansas.

According to a 2012 U.S. State Department report, Guyana has a population of about 751,000. Around 52 percent of Guyanese are Christian, with 65 percent of Christians identifying themselves as Protestant, and the other 35 percent self-identifying as Roman Catholic. As a result of ambitious missionary activities during the nineteenth century, the Afro-Guyanese are mostly Christian. Of the non-Christian Guyanese, 34 percent are Hindu, 9 percent are Muslim, and 5 percent are an unknown denomination. The 2002 Guyana census reported that 43.5 percent of the population was of East Indian ethnicity, 30.2 percent were of African descent, 16.7 percent were of mixed ethnicity, 9.1 percent were Amerindian, and the remaining 0.5 percent reported being of other ethnicities. Chinese, Portuguese, and British peoples have also contributed to the cultural heritage of the land. The standard of living in Guyana is relatively high due largely to its natural resources (specifically, oil, tropical rain forests, and the sugar industry). Still, approximately 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Guyanese immigration to the United States occurred in two major waves, the first of which took place during the first two decades of the twentieth century. These immigrants were typically single males who had left their families and possibly a fiancée behind in the hopes of sending for them later. They tended to work around the clock and supplement their educations in the evenings, typically settling in the northeastern cities of the United States. During the 1960s and 1970s, more Guyanese women than men settled in the United States, and they became the family members primarily responsible for securing immigrant status for their families. By 1990 more than 80 percent of Guyanese Americans lived in the Northeast.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates, 209,680 people of Guyanese ancestry resided in the United States during the time period between 2009 and 2011. The heaviest concentration of Guyanese Americans can be found in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, though a significant portion of the population also settled in Florida, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. About 18 percent of the total population of Guyana moved to New York City—particularly the East Flatbush, Flatbush, and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn—in the 1980s.


Early History Guyana is an Amerindian word that means “land of [many] waters.” The Europeans first used the name to refer to the triangle formed by the Orinoco, Amazon, and Negro rivers. The British used “Guiana”—an English spelling of the same Amerindian name—to refer to their New World colony. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Guyana was inhabited by several native groups. The largest group was the Caribs, who lived in the upper reaches of the Essequibo River, as well as near the Mazaruni, Cuyuni, Pomeroon, and Barima rivers. Between the Corentyne and Waini rivers lived the Arawaks, a friendly, peace-loving native group whose people were the first to greet Christopher Columbus in other areas of the Caribbean. Another native group, the Warrau, inhabited the swampland near the mouth of the Orinoco in present-day Venezuela but eventually moved east into Guyanese territory.

Christopher Columbus was the first European known to have sailed along the coast of Guyana. But during his voyage to the New World in 1498, Columbus only viewed the land's low-lying tropical shore. It was not until 1499 that Alonso de Ojeda became the first Spaniard to actually set foot on the land that would later be known as Guyana. No settlement, however, resulted from this early exploration. Between 1595 and 1616, English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh—who dreamed of “El Dorado” (the mythical land of gold)—led three expeditions to the Guyanese territory. Although Raleigh Page 294  |  Top of Articlefailed to locate any gold, his efforts resulted in the earliest mapping of the Guyanese coastline.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to gain a real foothold in Guyana. In Europe, the Dutch States-General (governing the provinces of present-day Holland) granted the Dutch West India Company a charter over the Guyana territory in 1621. The charter gave the company complete political and economic authority, the privilege to undertake pirate raids against Spanish shipping, and the right to carry slaves from West Africa to the New World. By 1770 more than 15,000 Africans were enslaved in Guyana. With this slave labor force at work, the farms began to grow in size and in yield. The success of the Dutch venture encouraged the development of sugar plantations in other inland regions of Guyana.

In 1781 war broke out between the Dutch and the British over ownership of the colony; the conflict resulted in a year of British control over Guyana. In 1782 the French seized power and governed for two years, during which time they created the new town of Longchamps at the mouth of the Demerara River. The Dutch regained power in 1784 and maintained control over the Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara settlements until 1796, when a British fleet from the Caribbean island of Barbados conquered the country. The British governed until 1802, at which time Guyana was restored to the Dutch under a truce established by the Treaty of Amiens. The next year the British once again conquered the colony, which was finally ceded to them in 1814 under agreements contained in the Treaty of Paris and the Congress of Vienna. In 1831, three years before slavery ended in the region, the British merged Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara to form British Guiana. After slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies on August 1, 1834, former slaves were subjected to a four-year apprenticeship to facilitate their transition to a wage labor system. However, after emancipation, few former slaves chose to work—even for wages—for the plantation owners who had once enslaved them.

Faced with a critical shortage of workers, planters decided to import workers under a system of indentured servitude. By 1844 indentured servitude in Guyana was almost solely the domain of East Indian laborers. After a five-year indenture period, the East Indians were “free” to return to India at their own expense. This indenture system, which satisfied the planter aristocracy's demand for workers, was abolished in British Guiana in 1917. But no matter how much headway was achieved by the former slaves or by former indentured laborers, the reins of political power remained in the firm grasp of a European elite.

Modern Era Guyana's road to independence was a rocky one. In 1953 a new constitution granted universal adult voting rights and established a two-house legislature. But political turmoil followed the first general election. The British government feared the communist leanings of the winning People's Progressive Party (PPP), which was led by Cheddi Berret Jagan (1918–1997). Consequently, the British suspended the new constitution and the elected government, and Guyana's constitution did not go into effect until 1961.

In addition to its communist stance, the PPP also advocated independence from Great Britain. From 1954 until the time that new elections were held in 1957, an interim government ruled British Guiana. Meanwhile, Jagan, an East Indian, and his fellow PPP cofounder, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923–1985), an African, had a major disagreement that ended their collaboration. This dissolution caused a chasm in the PPP—a division that fell largely (though not exclusively) along lines demarcated by ethnicity. Jagan's supporters were more Afro-Guyanese, whereas many Indo-Guyanese dedicated themselves to Burnham. Burnham left the PPP in 1957 and formed the People's National Congress (PNC), which eventually became an opposition party to the PPP. The split weakened the party's majority, but the PPP still won the most legislative seats in 1957 and again in 1961.

As head of the PPP, Jagan was elected prime minister of the colonial Guyanese government in 1957. Following the election, Burnham decided he needed greater support among the middle-class Afro-Guyanese; subsequently, he catered to this group—specifically those who had membership in the United Democratic Party. Ultimately, his segment of the PPP formed a new coalition with the UDP, named the People's National Congress (PNC). In response to these developments, Jagan cultivated greater ties with the Indo-Guyanese community. Although Jagan was named prime minister in the elections of 1961, the PNC posed challenges to him during his continued tenure in office.

Jagan also faced conflict with the United Force, a political party connected to the business section, and with the organization of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). This group was reputedly funded by the CIA, and it catalyzed riots in the early 1960s, many of which led to widespread destruction. In March 1964, Jagan's administration passed an unpopular Labour Relations Bill that was decried as a heavy-handed demonstration of political power. The nation erupted in riots on April 5, followed by a general strike on April 18. These events resulted in an extended period of violence so considerable that a state of emergency was declared. On July 7, the bill lapsed without going into effect, and the government pledged it would consult with union officials before trying to enact legislation of a similar nature.

Meanwhile, a sugar workers' strike led to another riot that produced escalations of violence, resulting in a state of emergency in May 1964. The ensuing hostilities led to widespread destruction and 160 deaths. As a result, the political parties of Guyana requested that the British government change the constitution to allow for proportional representation. In October 1964, elections were held, and the PPP was defeated. The colonial governor declared Burnham the victor by virtue of his Page 295  |  Top of Articleability to lead a coalition of the PNC and the United Force (UF), a third party led by Portuguese businessman Peter Stanislaus d'Aguiar. Under Burnham's leadership, the nation's long struggle for independence ended on May 26, 1966, when he assumed the office of prime minister of an independent Guyana.

In an attempt to put an end to foreign meddling in Guyanese affairs, Burnham steadfastly positioned Guyana among the world's nonaligned nations in world affairs. With Burnham at the helm, Guyana declared itself a “Cooperative Republic” in 1970. The change meant that Guyana became a socialist nation—a country committed to achieving prosperity by pooling its material and human resources. The Guyanese government also nationalized its industries, including foreign-owned bauxite companies (bauxite is used in the production of aluminum), which produced much of the country's wealth. By 1985, the end of Burnham's twenty-year tenure as chief executive and the year of his death, more than three-quarters of the country's economy had been brought under government control.

Immediately following Burnham's death, Vice President Hugh Desmond Hoyt was sworn into office. Regularly scheduled elections, criticized as fraudulent, were held in December 1985. Hoyt and the PNC won a solid but questionable victory. However, in national elections held in October 1992 under the watchful eye of the international community, the Jagan-led PPP won, bringing the tenure of the PNC as ruling party to a close after almost three decades.


The Guyanese people immigrated to the United States as part of two major waves of British West Indian immigration. The earlier wave took place roughly between the years 1900 to 1920; during this time, the number of immigrants steadily increased until the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed. This act placed race and ethnicity restrictions on entry to the United States and included the English-speaking Caribbean in the quota allotted to Great Britain. It also introduced a visa limit of 800 per year, with a preference system for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens. In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Act imposed a quota system for immigrants arriving from West Indian colonies including Guyana; this act halted the migration of Guyanese to the United States. The second wave of immigration began in 1965, with the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, which removed this quota system.

From the 1960s onward, political disputes and racial struggles created conflict between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. The ensuing violence led to considerable unrest in the country. Subsequently, people from both these groups immigrated to the United States to escape the problems of their home nation. Like many immigrant groups, they also sought to take advantage of job opportunities available in the United States.

In addition to the patterns described above, Guyanese immigration to the United States also increased sharply with the passage of Britain's 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which overturned the British Nationality Act of 1948. The earlier act allowed citizens of Guyana to claim citizenship in the United Kingdom and granted all Commonwealth citizens the same legal rights accorded to British citizens. Many Guyanese took advantage of this opportunity to further their education and improve their economic status. However, the concentration of nonwhite manual workers and their families in British cities stimulated an outcry against unregulated immigration, culminating in the 1962 act, which restricted their entry. With the doors of their “mother country” virtually closed to them, many Guyanese, mostly of the professional and technical classes, began to turn to the United States as their new land of opportunity.

The McCarran-Walter Act was amended in 1965 with the intention of protecting American workers and simultaneously restricting Western Hemispheric immigration to the United States. However, in 1968 an annual ceiling of 120,000 immigrant visas from the Western Hemisphere was introduced, and the purpose of the 1965 amendment was undermined. During this time, skilled laborers from Western Hemisphere countries journeyed to the United States in record numbers, including Guyanese applicants whose employment status fell into the categories of “professional,” “technical,” and “kindred” (or skilled) workers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of immigrants from Guyana increased dramatically as Guyana underwent drastic economic and political changes. The country declared itself a “Cooperative Republic” in 1970 and then promptly began taking steps to nationalize available resources. This period witnessed a considerable increase in the number of stresses and strains experienced by Guyana: these conditions produced declining productivity, massive unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation. The Burnham regime was also denounced for its repression of political opposition.

Between 1960 and 1970, more Guyanese entered the United States than ever before. Around this time, the United States experienced labor shortages—particularly within the health industry and in private households employing domestic servants. These were traditional areas of employment for women, so Guyanese women, like other Caribbean women, met demands in the United States for workers in the health and domestic fields. The first Guyanese to arrive in 1968, either as “private household workers” or as nurses' aides, were of African descent.

According to Monica Gordon in In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean, more Guyanese women than men settled in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, making them primarily responsible for securing immigrant status for their families. These women, Gordon concludes, tended to see migration as a means to improve their economic and social status as well as to attain

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educational opportunities for their children. U.S. Census Bureau records indicate that of the 48,608 people of Guyanese ancestry living in the United States in 1980, 26,046 were female. Based on this pattern, Guyanese immigrants no longer fit the traditional immigration pattern, in which the men settle in a new country first and send for their families later. Since the 1960s, female immigrants have assumed the status of “principal alien,” the term given to an immigrant worker within a specific or delineated labor force capacity, whose status activates other provisions in the migration process of family members. By 1990 approximately 81,665 people of Guyanese ancestry were living in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were more than 161,000 Guyanese Americans. By 2011 the Census Bureau estimated the population to be closer to 209,680 (American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011).


Guyanese generally speak and understand Creole or Creolese, which is a linguistic fusion of African dialects and English. Standard English is used for formal communication, though it is spoken in a definite Guyanese vernacular. As was common for many Caribbean immigrants, the first generation of Guyanese to travel to the United States settled among other Caribbean enclaves. Because people in their immediate communities could understand their oral communication, these immigrants made no real attempt to alter their speech patterns. Many who moved away from their Caribbean neighbors and integrated socially into more mainstream U.S. society gradually lost their distinctive Guyanese speech pattern. Some immigrants, however, chose to hold onto their speech pattern as a way of maintaining their identity.

As English is a language commonly used in Guyana, Guyanese Americans typically do not encounter the same type of language barriers and challenges as other immigrant populations. Guyanese American children, however, are sometimes taught in schools how to speak English without their Guyanese accents. In such cases, parents may feel that their children are “losing” their Guyanese heritage. Often, however, children retain the capacity to speak English both with and without their accent. Speaking without an accent has been characterized as an effort to use “proper” English, though whether such a shift actually represents an incarnation of “proper” English over “improper” English remains an unsettled issue. The ability to shift between different types of speaking patterns allows Guyanese American children to preserve their heritage as well as to interact in different types of settings and situations. The 2009 to 2011 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed that 96 percent of Guyanese Americans spoke only English at home. Only 1.1 percent spoke English less than “very well.”

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Guyanese Americans generally maintain an affiliation with the religious denomination of their homeland. The vast majority of Guyanese American churchgoers are Episcopalian. Priests from Guyana who immigrate to the United States frequently take on leadership positions in Guyanese American churches. These churches also serve as network centers for newly arrived immigrants. Many Caribbean-led Episcopalian churches in the New York City area have established schools that cater to the educational demands of Caribbean parents; frequently, these schools are staffed by former Caribbean schoolteachers.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Guyanese established a surge of nondenominational churches in the New York and New Jersey areas. These “churches,” which were more like teaching centers, attracted many newly settled Guyanese Americans. These so-called Unity Centers continue to serve as community centers, teaching positive thinking and ways to cultivate a closer relationship with God. The congregation reflects the many faces of the nations in the Caribbean, although Guyanese usually predominate at Unity Centers run by Guyanese priests and priestesses. Another notable trend in religious practices is the number of practicing Hindus among Guyanese Americans. This religion is especially dominant among the Indo-Guyanese, and more than 200,000 Hindu Guyanese Americans reside in New York and practice their religion faithfully.

Baptism is one religious practice that has retained its significance among Guyanese Americans. Family members may live hundreds of miles from an infant, but they often still travel to attend a baptismal celebration. According to Guyanese tradition, a female child will have two godmothers and one godfather, and a male child will have two godfathers and one godmother. The godparents are responsible for purchasing the baptismal gown for the child; however, if the mother still has her wedding dress, she may choose to use it to make a baptismal dress for her firstborn. The godparents take the child to church; the priest then confers the grace of God by placing his hand on the child's head. The godparents promise to lead the child in the way of the Lord. Then the priest blesses the child in the name of the Holy Trinity while rubbing incense on the forehead and chest, pours holy water over the forehead, and finally offers the child up to God.

After the baptism, it is customary to have a large gathering with lots of music, dancing, and food. Family members and friends shower the child with gifts, and money is pinned on the child for good luck and prosperity. Guyanese custom dictates that the child be given a piece of gold jewelry for good luck soon after birth. Typically, girls are given a pair of gold bangles (bracelets) and a pair of gold earrings, and boys are given a gold ring and a gold bracelet.


Many immigration studies on the Caribbean focus on other island nations, including Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados, Tobago, and Trinidad, in addition to Guyana, because a large number of their population resides abroad. Despite this migratory pattern, however, Guyanese Americans have typically settled in neighborhoods with other people of Caribbean origin. This pattern is especially predominant in New York City, which is one of the population centers for Guyanese Americans and has an immigration pool drawn primarily from the Caribbean. Of the top five source countries, four were Caribbean nations—the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana. Between 1982 and 1989, 70 percent of all Guyanese immigrants moved to New York.

Guyanese American immigrants first attracted international attention in 1978, after an incident at People's Temple in Guyana in which more than 900 Americans committed mass suicide by ingesting poison. The People's Temple, a cult that originated in California, consisted of U.S. citizens under the leadership of Reverend Jim Jones. Members of the Guyanese government found Jones's credentials sound and granted him permission to construct a religious center in Guyana's western region, near Port Kaituma. The enterprise, however, ended in tragedy when Jones—under scrutiny by the U.S. government for his questionable dealings—incited his followers to commit suicide. For years after, the country of Guyana was associated with this tragedy, which precipitated a noticeable increase in the Guyana immigrant population in the United States during the 1980s.

Traditions and Customs Much Guyanese folklore and tradition dates back centuries, and the practices and customs of Guyanese Americans are based on these elements of their heritage. Notable among these customs are habits retained based on a deeply ingrained belief in and respect for Guyanese superstitions. Guyanese Americans who sustain these belief systems frequently identify with some Caribbean enclave. The following are some examples of Guyanese customs based on such superstitions: Good Friday is considered a very unlucky day to be involved in outdoor activities if they are not related to church. When entering a house late at night, a person should go in backward in order to keep evil spirits out. To cure a fever, a sliced potato should be placed on the ill person's forehead. To cure the effects of a stroke (such as a twisted mouth), a whole nutmeg should be placed inside the mouth on the affected side. A black cat crossing in front of a pedestrian will bring bad luck. A dog howling at a particular house is a sign that death will soon come to someone in that household. A pond fly in the house is a sign of news or correspondence. Stepping over someone's leg will stunt their growth. All references to the dead must be prefaced with the words: “God rest the dead in the living and the

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2 cups long grain rice

1 cup of black eyed peas (soaked overnight)

1 pound smoked turkey

3 cups water

2 cups coconut milk

1 tablespoon thyme, finely chopped

1 medium onion, minced

1 scotch bonnet pepper, minced

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon cassareep or soy sauce (optional)

2 small or 1 large bouillon cubes

1 teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons oil


In a soup pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil and add black eyed peas. Cook until slightly brown. Add 1 tablespoon of cassareep or soy sauce and allspice to taste. Continue to cook until it's absorbed. Pour in 2 cups of water. Bring to a rapid boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook black eyed peas for 30 minutes, or until cooked but firm. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Add to pot 1 tablespoon oil and chopped onion. Sauté until softened. Add turkey and sauté for 5 minutes. Add rice, scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, black pepper, bouillon, salt, coconut milk, cooked black eyed peas, and the additional water. Stir and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Fluff with a fork and transfer to a serving platter.

looking.” The fact that Guyanese Americans continue to keep these traditions alive exemplifies the strength of these customs as well as the power of the beliefs that underlie and perpetuate them.

Cuisine Guyanese Americans have retained the diverse flavors that combine to form their distinctive cuisine, which is appetizing, spicy, and delicious. Spices and herbs are used in abundance, and one-dish meals occupy an important place in Guyanese cuisine. These dishes—sometimes called “poor man food”—are nourishing, inexpensive, and very easy to prepare. Guyanese men and women both enjoy cooking, and each gender tries to outdo the other in the excellence of the meals they prepare.

Pepperpot, one of the most popular dishes and considered representative nationally of Guyanese American cuisine, is a combination of different meats (beef, pork), spices, a dash of sugar, lots of onion, and cassareep (a sauce made using the fermented juice from the bitter cassava plant); it is eaten with rice or bread. Cook-up rice, another national dish, is a blend of rice, split peas or black-eyed peas, spices, onion, coconut milk, and meats. Also central to the repertoire of Guyanese recipes is the array of Indian curried dishes, made with curry powder, an East Indian spice with a distinctive flavor. African Metemgee, an inexpensive dish that is very filling, is made from coconut milk, meat or fish, onion, spices, plantains, and dumplings. Other popular dishes include souse, a very spicy and tangy dish made from boiled pig ears and pig feet, and flavored with cucumber, hot pepper, scallions, and lemon juice. Portuguese garlic pork is highly spiced pork pickled in garlic and vinegar. It is served fried and is eaten with bread. Dahl is a blend of boiled split peas, onion, garlic, curry powder, and cumin. It can be served over rice or eaten with roti, a pancake-like bread. Guyanese cuisine is not complete without Chinese noodles and chow mein, and black pudding, also called blood pudding, which is served with a tangy hot sauce.

Another culinary trend practiced by Guyanese Americans is to make dishes that blend together ingredients from different types of cuisine. The cuisine of Guyana has been impacted by the different ethnic groups that have lived in Guyana, and the dishes typically prepared by Guyanese Americans reflect this diversity. Konkee is a sweet dish made from corn flour, sugar, spices, grated coconut, and raisins. The mixture is then wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. Foofoo, one of several substitutes for rice, is simply boiled plantains pounded in a mortar with a pestle. This is usually served with some type of stew. Coocoo, another substitute for rice, is a corn meal mush blended with seasoned boiled okra. Cutty Cutty soup, a “poor man” dish, is made with okra, salted beef, pig tail, tripe (stomach tissue, usually from a cow), onion, green plantains, and dumplings. Salt fish cakes, also called codfish cakes, are made from shredded salted codfish mashed together with boiled potatoes, onion, and pepper, then placed in a batter and fried. Black cake is Guyanese fruit cake, usually made at Christmas or for weddings. It is a very dark and very rich fruit cake made with rum. Ginger beer is a nonalcoholic homemade drink made from grated ginger and sweetened water.

Traditional Dress People of Indo-Guyanese descent represent one of the largest groups within the Guyanese American population, and many Indo-Guyanese women wear their traditional sari for special occasions such as weddings or East Indian holidays. Saris are garments made from long pieces of light cloth: one end is wrapped around the waist to form a skirt and the other is draped over the shoulder or the head. Some Afro-Guyanese wear the African booboo and head wrap.

Dances and Songs Guyana's National Dance Company—a multiethnic troupe—performs East Indian and African dances during national holidays,

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A wealth of proverbs from Guyanese culture have survived through the generations.

Hint at Quashiba mek Beneba tek notice.

Pay attention to the hints someone drops.

Wuh is fun fuh school boy is dead fuh crappo.

One man's meat is another man's poison.

Bush gat ears, goobie gat hole.

When you least expect it, people are eavesdropping.

Mouth open, story jump out.

Some people can't keep a secret.

Show me yuh company, I'll tell you who you be.

People judge you by the friends you keep.

Moon run til day ketch he.

Your deeds usually catch up with you.

Greedy man y'eye does yalla twice, fuh he own and he mattie own.

Some people are never satisfied.

Monkey mek he pickney til he spoil'um.

Similar to “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Wuh fall from head drop pun shoulder.

Sins of the parents fall on the children.

If yuh guh to crab dance, yuh mus get mud.

What you sow you reap.

Who lif yuh up doan put yuh dung.

Those who get you into trouble don't get you out.

It's a lazy horse that can't carry its own oats.

Your burden is yours to carry.

Hand wash hand mek hand come clean.

More is accomplished through cooperation.

Mocking is ketching.

Don't laugh at another's situation, it might be yours.

Monkey know wuh limb to jump pun.

Bullies know exactly on whom to pick.

Donkey ears long, but he doan hear he own story.

Some people mind other people's business.

Do suh nuh like suh.

Treat others as you would like to be treated.

If yuh nuh gat muhma suck granny.

Make do with what you have.

Every rope got two ends.

Every story has two sides.

Cat a ketch rat but he a teef he massa fish.

Good and evil frequently come from the same source.

Big tree fall down, goat bite he leaf.

When the mighty fall on hard times, they are disrespected by all.

All cassava get same skin but all nah taste same way.

People may look the same, but that they all still act in unique ways.

including Independence Day; Deepavali, the Hindu celebration of lights; Phagwah, the Hindu festival to welcome spring; and the republic celebrations. In addition to these practices and rituals, many Guyanese Americans keep their artistic traditions strong by listening to chutney music, a dance-based genre that integrates calypso with more traditional Indian folk songs to form a style frequently heard in Guyana. Because of the dominance of Indo-Guyanese people within the Guyanese American population, music and dances made popular by Bollywood films are also a notable element of Guyanese culture in the United States.

Holidays In addition to Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Sunday, Guyanese Americans celebrate Guyana's Independence on May 26 and, to a lesser degree, “August Monday,” the first Monday in August, symbolizing Emancipation Day. At Independence Day celebrations, the national anthem, “Dear Land of Guyana,” is sung. Many of these holidays are celebrated with great verve in Little Guyana in New York City. Many Guyanese Americans—especially those living in Little Guyana—also celebrate Holi, an event commonly called Phagwah (a “festival of colors”), which is associated with the Hindu religion. Another holiday observed by Guyanese Americans is Pitri Paksh (commonly called Peter Pak in the Caribbean): this is a two-week period in mid-October during which Guyanese Americans can reflect on their heritage and honor their ancestors by making daily offerings, sometimes of the preferred dish of a deceased family member. In the Hindu tradition, these practices please the deity. In more recent years, an event called Guyanese-American Family Fun Day has taken place in New York City. In 2007 organizers had difficulty agreeing with officials about how to control attendance at the event; it Page 300  |  Top of Articlewas subsequently canceled. Other Guyanese-American Family Fun Days have since taken place in other areas of the country (including in Orlando, Florida, in 2010), and people have attended these events in high numbers.


During the two major waves of immigration from Guyana over the last century or so, family practices, dynamics, and structures have shifted as different behavioral trends emerged and became dominant. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the first wave of Guyanese immigrants typically consisted of single males who had left their families and possibly a fiancée behind temporarily in the hopes of sending for them later; in the interim, they supplemented the income of the family back home. Many married men did not immigrate ahead of their families because their jobs at home provided the only source of income. In the case of the Indo-Guyanese, some husbands and wives came together, leaving children with grandparents or other relatives. Within the past few decades, there has been an increase in the number of Indo-Guyanese women who have immigrated without their families. In fact, in many cases, Indo-Guyanese women have had to travel without their spouses and children, and they have become the primary breadwinners in their families. However, their numbers are still minuscule in comparison to Afro-Guyanese women, who began moving to the United States alone in the 1960s. Typically, these newcomers first stayed for a short time with friends or relatives. After finding work, however, they usually rented rooms in crowded boarding houses (often occupied by other Guyanese and Caribbean immigrants).

Like typical first-generation immigrants, the Guyanese worked hard and saved most of their earnings, doing without the simplest of pleasures. Their primary goal was to facilitate the passage of their family members to the United States. Many of the males worked around the clock and went to night classes to better themselves educationally; women typically performed “sleep in” work—living six days per week at their place of employment and returning to the boarding house for one day, usually beginning Saturday night and ending Sunday night. That one day off was spent in church and at stores shopping for things to “pack a barrel” for their kin back home.

After acquiring permanent resident status and securing their family's passage to the United States, Guyanese immigrants then concentrated on improving their economic and educational status. Many women pursued nursing degrees part-time while holding multiple jobs.

Gender Roles Traditionally, Guyanese society has been relatively patriarchal, sometimes to the extent that women might encounter not only dominance by their partners or husbands, but occasionally even situations involving domestic abuse. In the United States, this trend is not nearly as dominant, as the genders interact in a more balanced manner. In addition, women can often gain greater access to educational opportunities in the United States and thereby secure more stable and advanced employment positions. In New York City, Guyanese American females are typically more involved in the workforce than they are in Guyana. Many Guyanese American women also participate actively in their communities, serving as visible leaders in various roles. For these reasons, among others, gender dynamics function slightly differently among Guyanese Americans than they do in Guyana. It is not uncommon for Guyanese American women to be the primary breadwinners for their families.

Family is at the core of the Guyanese social network. Other Guyanese are preferred as marriage partners, but many Guyanese marry persons from other Caribbean nations or Americans of Caribbean parentage. The percentage of marriages between Guyanese and Americans—black or white—is low.

Education Guyanese parents view education as a combination of learning and discipline; many opt to pay for private schooling as a means of assuring that their children will receive a solid education. Guyanese Americans have typically taken advantage of the educational opportunities available in the United States. The men who were part of the first wave of migration worked long hours, yet still found the motivation and perseverance to complete night classes to better their positions and themselves.

Courtship and Weddings Among Guyanese Americans, as in Guyana, weddings are a time of extended celebration and enjoyment not only for the couple, but also for their friends and family. As a preparatory ritual, the bridal shower is a social custom practiced in Guyana among many Christians and non-Christians alike. For Christian weddings, banns are usually announced in the church for three consecutive Sundays so that impediments to the marriage—if any exist—can be brought to the attention of the priest. During this period, the priest counsels the couple on the duties of marriage. As in the United States, the couple selects a best man, maid (or matron) of honor, bridesmaids, and attendants. In most cases, the best man and maid/matron of honor serve as godparents to the couple's first child. The godmother then becomes the couple's mac mae (“mac may”) and the godfather the com pae (“com pay”).

One tradition common in Guyana involves an act that takes place the night before the wedding in which the bride is feted by the older women of her family in a celebration of song and dance called a kweh kweh. The actual wedding ceremony mirrors the traditional American church wedding, with some exceptions. For instance, silver coins are blessed by the priest and given to the bride and groom for good luck and prosperity. The priest wraps a robe around the bride Page 301  |  Top of Articleand groom, symbolizing their union, and blesses them before concluding the ceremony. These traditions, though an important part of Guyanese culture are not prevalent among Guyanese Americans and are in danger of fading from their cultural traditions.

Most Guyanese American weddings are held at a private home or at a Caribbean catering hall to ensure a Guyanese menu. Gifts are usually delivered before the day of the wedding. Toasting or paying respects to the newlyweds is the focal point of the reception. The best man gives his blessings and advice first; he then directs the parents of the couple to speak before he offers the opportunity to elders in the audience. The bridegroom then speaks, thanking everyone for attending. The reception is accompanied by Caribbean music and dancing. Two weeks after the wedding, the couple entertains family and friends at a gala called a “Second Sunday.”

In contrast to Guyanese Americans of Afro-Guyanese descent, Indo-Guyanese Americans tend to view marriage in a more utilitarian manner. They commonly participate in arranged marriages, even among different classes, as is sometimes still practiced in India. Any examination of how this group as a whole has adapted to life in the United States must necessarily encompass the complexity of both of these groups, with a particular focus on their courtship and marriage rituals.

Relations with Other Americans From their first arrival, the Guyanese began to interact with other ethnic groups, particularly Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Grenadians, and people from other English-speaking Caribbean nations. Guyanese Americans frequently reside in communities that do not have distinct spatial boundaries from other groups, especially other peoples of Caribbean island nation descent. This nurturing of a Caribbeanness contributes to the resistance to marry outside of the Caribbean group.


Many early Guyanese immigrants settled in the northeastern region of the United States, particularly in New York. These individuals found work in health care, domestic labor, banking, clerical, and physical security fields. During this earlier period, they were often paid the lowest wages and—like members of other immigrant groups—typically worked several jobs at a time. After accumulating work experience and permanent resident status, many Guyanese advanced to better paying positions.

Some Guyanese Americans established their own small, family-run businesses, such as bakeries and takeout restaurants catering to the tastes of a Caribbean community. Others who could not afford to rent business space in Caribbean neighborhoods sold Guyanese food out of their homes on weekends. As the Guyanese immigrants became more established, they opened real estate offices, guard services, small grocery stores (specializing in food products from home, such as cassareep), neighborhood law offices (specializing in immigration and real estate law), beauty salons, and travel agencies. According to the 2009–2011 American Community Survey, 30.7 percent of Guyanese Americans sixteen years of age and older worked in management, business, sciences, or arts; 26.1 percent worked in sales and office occupations; and 25.3 percent worked in service industries.

Education is highly valued in Guyana, and teachers are highly respected. Even during the first wave of immigration, Guyanese Americans actively sought out educational opportunities and chances to “better” themselves. Many Guyanese Americans and Guyanese immigrants to the United States were already certified or licensed in professions, and this trend also impacted their employment possibilities and economic practices.


Guyanese are active in the organizations of the larger Caribbean region. There are many Guyanese nurses' and police associations. Although Guyanese Americans are interested in acquiring information about the world, including information about political developments, their actual engagement in political discussions, or in political matters, is low when they are considered collectively. Thus, Guyanese Americans have not yet made a collective impact on national political activity. Locally, however, they have started to engage in organized movements designed to improve conditions in their neighborhoods. In more recent years, Guyanese Americans have taken an active interest in U.S. politics at the local, state, and federal levels. As a group, they have become aware that their capacity to engender change lies in their right to vote, and that this power can help them protect their rights (for example, in securing low-interest student loans). The active status of the Guyanese American media has contributed to this increased awareness of the importance of engaging in political activism. Subsequently, Guyanese Americans have formed organizations and coalitions that are designed to protect the rights of Guyanese Americans as a group.

Relations with Guyana Guyanese Americans maintain close ties to their homeland and its people, and they provide significant financial support to their native country. During the late 1970s and 1980s—when Guyana was experiencing a terrible economic crisis owing to the further devaluation of the Guyanese dollar, skyrocketing prices for consumer goods, and shortages of basic necessities—Guyanese organizations pooled their fundraising resources and made generous donations of money, food, clothing, and equipment to Guyanese hostels, orphans, almshouses, schools, and hospitals. High school alumni associations furnished their alma maters and other schools with chairs, desks, books, and office supplies. Nurses'

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Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) was the first black American elected to Congress. She was also the first woman to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) was the first black American elected to Congress. She was also the first woman to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972. DENNIS BRACK BS20 / NEWSCOM

organizations donated syringes, bed sheets, thermometers, penicillin, and other scarce supplies to hospitals.

There is a steady flow of scholarly exchange between Guyana and the United States in the form of academic conferences. There are Caribbean associations in almost every college or university with a sizable Caribbean student body that encourage the connections with home through guest lecturers, trips, and networking. In the United States, academic organizations such as the Association of Caribbean Historians, the Caribbean Studies Association, and the Caribbean Writers Association cater to scholars from the Caribbean.


Guyanese Americans represent a minuscule percentage of the United States' total population, but they have made significant contributions to American popular culture, the arts, academia, and politics.

Literature and the Arts Guyana has long provided a theme for literary expression. Popular Guyanese American authors include Jan Carew (1920–2012), Gordon Rohlehr (1942–), and E. R. Braithwaite (1920–). Braithwaite's memoir To Sir, with Love (1959) details his experiences as a black high school teacher in a white London slum. The work was praised for its hopeful view of difficult race relations and was adapted for a 1967 film of the same name. The works of Jan Carew include Black Midas (1958), a picaresque novel acclaimed for its vivid portrayal of raw and roguish types in the diamond fields of Guyana; The Wild Coast (1958), a sensitive study of a young man's difficult passage from puberty to manhood; and The Last Barbarian (1961), a study of West Indian and African life in Harlem.

Miramy, a full-length Guyanese comedy by Frank Pilgrim, is set on an imaginary island in the West Indies. It became the first locally written play to be performed outside of Guyana.

Music Rihanna (1988–) (given name Robyn Rihanna Fenty) was born in Barbados to a Guyanese mother and a Barbadian/Irish father. She is one of the most successful young female singers and performers of the early twenty-first century, and her music has sold more than 25 million albums and 60 million digital singles worldwide. She has had thirty-five Number 1 hits in thirty-five countries, and she has won five Grammy Awards.

Politics Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924–2005) served as an American politician, teacher, and writer. She was the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968, and she represented New York's 12th Congressional District for seven terms (1969–1983). During her political career, she also broke through barriers by running to be a presidential nominee for the Democratic Party in 1972. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and her father was an immigrant from Guyana.

Sports Maritza Correia (1981–) was born to parents who immigrated to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Guyana. Correia qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004 and was the first Puerto Rican of African descent to make the team. She also set both a U.S. and a world swimming record, becoming the first African American U.S. swimmer to set such a precedent.

Rycklon Stephens, stage name Ezekiel Jackson (1978–), performs with the World Wrestling Entertainment company (WWE): he joined the organization in 2007 and won the 2010 championship of a specific program televised by the WWE. He holds a degree from the State University of New York, University at Buffalo.

Stage and Screen Sean Patrick Thomas (1970–) was born in Wilmington, Delaware, to Guyanese parents. He studied at the University of Page 303  |  Top of ArticleVirginia before earning a master's degree in drama from New York University in 1995. He is best known for his film roles in Save the Last Dance (2001) and Barbershop (2002), and for his television role on Lie to Me.


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Caribbean Journal LLC

The Caribbean Journal was founded in 2011 to offer news and political observations in a new and innovative manner. It is the first to offer all Caribbean-related news in one periodical. The publication serves as a central news source for islanders.


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The Guyana Association of Georgia

This organization was designed to provide Guyanese Americans with a venue through which they could interact to sustain and keep their culture alive, as well as to stay connected with events taking place back in Guyana.

Orrin Marshall
P.O. Box 360744
Decatur, Georgia 30036

Guyana Friends Association of Massachusetts, Inc.

Guyana Friends Association of Massachusetts, Inc., expresses and fosters Guyanese culture through art, music, and education.

Ronald H. Lammy, President
21 Dewey Street
Roxbury, Massachusetts 02119

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Guyana Republican Party (GRP)

P.O. Box 260185
Brooklyn, New York 11226-0185
Phone: (718) 756-7500
Fax: (973) 484-1615

Guyanese American Association of Schenectady

The Guyanese American Association of Schenectady is dedicated to promoting empowerment of people, protection of the environment, and respect for cultural diversity. This organization is designed to provide Guyanese Americans with a sense of family and community, and to offer them services on which they can rely.

Punema Singh, President
P.O. Box 80
Schenectady, New York 12301


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Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies

Founded in 1994, Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) works to increase knowledge of the cultures, economies, histories, environment, and contemporary affairs of past and present Latin America.

Center for Government and International Studies
1730 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Phone: (617) 495-3366
Fax: (617) 496-2802


Dindayal, Vidur. Guyanese Achievers USA & Canada: A Celebration. New York: Trafford, 2011.

Levine, Barry B., ed. The Caribbean Exodus. New York: Praeger, 1987.

Palmer, Ransford W. In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Ramsaroop, Yuvraj. Realizing the American Dream: The Personal Triumph of a Guyanese Immigrant. New York: XLibris, 2010.

Udeogalanya, Veronica. Demographic and SocioEconomic Characteristics of Caribbean Immigrants and Non-Immigrant Population in the United States. Brooklyn: Caribbean Research Center, Medgar Evers College, 1989.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300084